Itching for a House of Cards fix? Chew on Hollywood’s best political villains
As Netflix-loving viewers gear up to binge-watch the new season of House of Cards when it launches on March 4, let us sit back and appreciate the truly dastardly and ruthless TV and movie political villains we’ve developed a love-hate relationship with over the years.
Sure, they lie, they cheat, they steal, they commit murder, they ruin rivals’ careers, they stab people in the back, they start wars, they crush their enemies like so much folded origami. No one’s perfect.
So let’s look at some of the best—or the worst—political villains that Hollywood has to offer. They’ve left a trail of victims in their path longer than Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs … only those victims are disposed of in ways much nastier than being eaten by birds.
This is not meant to be an all-inclusive list, and some will be incensed that I left out a favorite. That’s okay—there’s enough evil to spread around, and I’d love to hear about more baddies. And I’ll say ahead of time: SPOILER ALERT if you’ve got to catch up with HoC before streaming to see if Frank Underwood has brought down—or killed—anyone lately.
We’ve got to start with Washington’s favorite power couple, Francis and Claire Underwood, “the unsplittable atom of American politics,” whatever the current state of their marriage. If you looked up “ruthless politician” in the dictionary, there would be a photo of Kevin Spacey, dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, and power tie, with an evil half-smile on his face. Frank bases his political actions on what he calls “ruthless pragmatism,” and he doesn’t let anyone—or anything—stand in his way, whether that means they must be humiliated, fired, or killed. He has the perfect match in Claire, who uses the same ruthlessness against her enemies and even against her husband. In one scene, as they discussed political payback against a foe, an angry Claire declared, “I want him to suffer.” Frank gave one of his signature asides to the camera in his Southern deadpan drawl: “I don’t know whether to be terrified or proud. Maybe both.”
Eleanor Shaw Iselin from The Manchurian Candidate. Never has Angela Lansbury been so far from the wholesome Jessica Fletcher solving murder mysteries in Cabot Cove, Maine. Mother Iselin is a fierce, cold, and ambitious woman driving her senator husband’s Communist-bashing career from behind the scenes. This 1962 film, based on Richard Condon’s 1959 thriller, came at the height of the Cold War. It has everything from brainwashing to red-baiting to double-crossing to murder. Her kiss to her son Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) full on the mouth is one of the most chilling moments in the movie. Lansbury won the Golden Globe award, although not the Oscar. Fun fact: Lansbury was only three years older than Harvey, even though she played his mother.
Jim Taylor in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Director Frank Capra used actor Edward Arnold in multiple films, often to play bad guys, as in Meet John Doe, in which he played an evil newspaper publisher who wants to be president. In Mr. Smith, Arnold plays Taylor, a political boss to leave all other political bosses in the dust. Taylor is a newspaper and industry magnate who controls all of the politics in an unnamed Western state, and many politicians are on his payroll, including Sen. Joseph Paine (Claude Raines). Taylor chooses a successor when Paine’s fellow Sen. Sam Foley dies—a successor who will do Taylor’s bidding—but the governor makes the unlikely pick of naive and honest Jefferson Smith (James Stewart). Paine takes Smith under his wing and has him introduce legislation that Smith believes will help his Boy Rangers but instead would expose a huge pork-barrel project of Taylor’s. Jimmy Stewart delivers his classic filibuster, and all is well in the end (it is a Frank Capra film, after all). The 1939 movie premiered in Constitution Hall to a crowd of journalists and senators, and they hated it—the press called it anti-American and pro-Communist for showing corruption in U.S. government. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards but won only one Oscar, thwarted by a Gone With the Wind juggernaut.
Little Bill Daggett from Unforgiven. No question: Sheriff Daggett is the LAW in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming. Daggett (Gene Hackman) doesn’t allow criminals in his town, and he beats, kicks, tortures, and kills those he considers lawbreakers. He’s not about to tolerate the guns-for-hire led by William Munny (Clint Eastwood) who are offered $1,000 to wreak vengeance on the baddies who disfigured a prostitute. This clip is from the final Hackman-Eastwood standoff. The film won four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director for Eastwood, and Best Supporting Actor for Hackman.
Whom to pick from all the rotten eggs in Scandal? An obvious choice is Sally Langston, the first VP of President Fitzgerald Grant. She was the Bible-thumping conservative Fitz chose as a running mate to ensure the evangelical vote for his first term. She also became unhinged when she saw photos of her husband having sex with another man, and viewers got to watch as she stabbed said husband to death. Fitz’ amoral chief of staff, Cyrus Beene, (Jeff Perry) helps her “clean up” the scene, and by the time a doctor arrives, Sally gets away with her crime by throwing herself on her husband’s now- dressed body, screaming, “DON’T YOU TOUCH HIM!” And the doctor leaves the body alone (OK, only on TV). Fun fact: Sally was played by Kate Burton, daughter of actors Richard and Sybil Burton.
Speaking of amoral chiefs of staff, what about the dastardly Bob Alexander in the comedy Dave? He arranges for a lookalike to stand in when the president has a stroke during a hotel bedroom romp with an aide. Alexander masterminded a savings and loan moneymaking scheme that he blamed on the saintly vice president. It’s all to further his own political ambitions, which get thwarted in the end, but not before he gets to shout the words, “Die, you pond scum!” at the faux president on TV. Deliciously played by Frank Langella. And I think it should be a requirement that every president from now on have an accountant friend like Charles Grodin to come in and straighten out the books.
Emperor Palpatine from multiple Star Wars films. Don’t forget that before Sheev Palpatine (also Darth Sidious) became the disfigured evil emperor, he weaseled his way up through the political ranks. The Sith lord was an ambassador from Naboo before he manipulated galactic politics into a crisis on Naboo, convincing the Galactic Senate to elect him Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic. Palpatine orchestrated the Clone Wars that killed billions, all the while amassing more and more power for his office. He finally declared himself Emperor of the Galactic Empire, almost destroying the entire Jedi in the process, and we all know how that turned out. Certainly evil, plus the dude could kill you with scary-looking blue lightning coming out of his fingers.
Fun fact: Although the role was mostly played by Ian McDiarmid, in the original Empire Strikes Back, the emperor was portrayed visually by Elaine Baker in a hood, wife of special effects makeup legend Rick Baker.
Emperor Commodus from Gladiator. Joaquin Phillips glared and sneered his way through this role, murdering his father, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, so he could take over as emperor; burning the entire family of Gen. Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) when the general refused to support him; threatening to kill his nephew so his sister will reveal a plot against him; and cheating in the final duel against Maximus. The 2000 film won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Crowe.
Which character is the most evil from Game of Thrones? So many characters, families, and houses to choose from, from the violent to the conniving to the truly deadly. You could build an excellent case for the wily and cunning Peter “Littlefinger” Baelish or the sadistic Ramsey Snow Bolton, but I pick Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) for his cool, calculated decisions, always made dispassionately but with his own ultimate interests in mind. He’s not above throwing any of his three offspring to the wolves in a variety of ways, as long as it keeps the gold flowing and keeps him in charge as Lord of Casterly Rock. Alas, his treachery gets him in the end. While he’s on his end.
If you want see a particularly creepy version of a political leader, watch Throne of Blood, which is Macbeth set in feudal Japan and directed by Akira Kurosawa. This may not be technically Hollywood, since it’s Japanese, but the eerie tone in this 1957 film sends chills down the spine no matter your nationality. And there may never have been a more bloodless Lady Macbeth than Izusu Yamada playing Lady Asaji Washizu, although Toshiro Mifune as Taketoki Washizu, with multiple arrows sticking out of his back, is a close second.
Nathan Templeton from Commander in Chief. The show didn’t last very long, despite initial high ratings, but Donald Sutherland perfected the evil glare as House Speaker Templeton. He always launched nefarious plans to thwart President Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) since Templeton believed he was the late president’s choice to succeed him as commander in chief, and he planned to challenge Mac in her re-election bid. Too bad the show got cancelled—it might have been a fun race.
President Snow from the Hunger Games series. Donald Sutherland again (hmmm … noticing a pattern here). Panem’s leader keeps the screws on all the Districts while his Capital subjects live in luxury. His evil omnipresence via televised appearances that are mandatory watching beats down the populace and keeps all of his subjects in fear. His quiet, understated fury and general malevolence as he attempts payback at Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is awesome to behold. Plus, he has all those cool weapons the Capital has to offer. And white roses, too.
So c’mon. As we watch the returns from the primary contests on Super Tuesday, let’s ignore the GOP political infighting. Let’s forget the Bernie-Hillary wars. Because here’s what Kevin Spacey said in a recent interview when asked what would happen in a debate between Frank Underwood and Donald Trump:
He wouldn’t (debate Underwood). There would be a terrible accident, on the way to the debate. It would be terrible, and very sad.
Let’s get behind UNDERWOOD 2016. If you know what’s good for you.
Originally published on Daily Kos on Feb. 28, 2016.